Russell Hoban (1925-2011), renowned author for young and old

One of my favorite children’s authors, Russell Hoban, died this past Tuesday at the age of 86. Hoban was a skilled and highly-praised novelist, as well; but as a father of young girls, I came to know his work through his immortal Frances the Badger series of books from the 1960s, which featured brilliant illustrations — first from Garth Williams, then from Hoban’s wife, Lillian Hoban.

The first page of "Bedtime for Frances" (1960); illustration by Garth Williams.

This appreciation published today the Lawrence Downs of the New York Times aptly describes the remarkable level of craft and insight Hoban brought to his work.

It’s hard to write a book. It’s harder to write one with living characters, clever scenes, warmth and wit. And it’s harder still when the people you’re writing for can’t read, or read only a little, when the words you choose must be simple, short and sweet. And if not always sweet, at least short.

Pictures help. They help a lot, sometimes more than they should. If pictures in a picture book are an enchanted countryside, the words are often just the tracks the story chugs along toward bedtime, more functional than lovely.

Russell Hoban, who died on Tuesday in London, age 86, was an author whose books for youngest readers contained writing as good as the drawings. He wrote grown-up books, too, which were praised for dazzling and inventive language. A Times reviewer called “Riddley Walker,” Mr. Hoban’s 1980 novel about a postnuclear dystopia, Beckettian, Boschian and Twain-like. Mr. Hoban knew what he was doing.

Which is obvious from his seven books about Frances. Frances is a badger who has a mother, father, baby sister and friends whose stories unfold in sentences that will delight you and make you laugh. Frances is witty and stubborn. She is adorable not because the author tells us she is. She just is:

“Frances did not eat her egg.
She sang a little song to it.
She sang the song very softly:
I do not like the way you slide,
I do not like your soft inside,
I do not like you lots of ways,
And I could do for many days
Without eggs.”

Children’s books, like pop songs, are simple things we’ll never run out of, partly because so many people want to write them and think they can. But simplicity is harder than it looks. So are depth and beauty. Mr. Hoban’s Frances books take us all the way to delight, using an easy-reader vocabulary.

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